Terms of Engagement

Lift One from the Gipper

Tim Pawlenty has the Reaganite foreign policy talking points down, but do they add up to anything?

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

As I was sitting in the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations the other day, listening to Gov. Tim Pawlenty check off the boxes of right-wing internationalism, I kept waiting for the personal payoff moment, where the candidate says, "As a boy growing up in the depths of the Cold War," or even, "I saw the miracle of free markets on a trip to Singapore." But the moment never came, and Pawlenty marched blandly forward with his agenda: apply more pressure on Iran and less on Israel; watch out for the Muslim Brotherhood; assassinate Muammar al-Qaddafi.

I imagine that if the former Minnesota governor had a stock of foundational experiences or even intuitions about the world, he would have drawn on them. Perhaps he hadn’t paid much attention to the world beyond our borders prior to deciding to run for president. That’s a problem, though hardly an unfamiliar one among governors; both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton learned on the job, with more or less damage along the way. But the problem, in this case, is endemic: The current generation of Republicans seems unable to mount a convincing and coherent case for engaging the world.

I first need to amend something I wrote a few weeks ago. After the first Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, I concluded that the "neo-Reaganite" ethos in foreign policy — uncompromising rhetoric, intervention in the name of "values," democracy promotion — had no followers among the GOP candidates. I should have said that the candidates have calculated that Republican primary voters don’t have much of an appetite for that language (nor do many Democrats). In fact, three of the more likely candidates for the nomination — Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Pawlenty — all offer some variant of conservative internationalism.

Among them, Pawlenty is most ardently channeling the neo-Reaganite vision. "When you’re flying in the clouds," he said in his speech to the council, "you want to make sure your compass is set to true north." Pawlenty’s true north is "moral clarity." He used this Reaganesque expression as often as possible. He contrasted the clarion call of his own press releases on events in the Arab Spring with President Barack Obama’s "murky policy" of engagement. He criticized Obama for being too slow to demand that Hosni Mubarak step down in Egypt, too hesitant to use force in Libya, too equivocal about Bashar al-Assad’s brutality in Syria. And — this was the less predictable and more striking part — he took on those in his own party (no names mentioned) who "shrink from the challenges of America’s leadership in the world." The very fact that Pawlenty chose to deliver the speech in the sanctum sanctorum of the foreign policy establishment rather than at, say, the Heritage Foundation, constituted a rebuke to the yahoos in the party — though also, of course, a message to moderate Republican donors looking for an alternative to Obama.

"Moral clarity," then, is the alternative both to the heartless realism of engagement and to the short-sightedness and penny-pinching of isolationism. But Pawlenty’s moral clarity didn’t feel as clear as Reagan’s or Sen. John McCain’s. Theirs’ was rooted in life experience and was consistent with a broader worldview, just as "engagement" is rooted in Obama’s own experience and his intuitions about the world. Pawlenty’s views sounded as borrowed as T-Paw, his NBA-style nickname. It felt like he had rummaged in the closet of Republican policy options and come out with whatever seemed to fit. (Of course Mitt Romney seems to do this with almost everything.) And the hat turns out to be a little too big for his head.

It may be that at this moment in Republican history, isolationism is going to sound more persuasive than muscular internationalism, both because that’s where the party’s base is at and because it fits so comfortably with the GOP’s obsession with the evils of government and with the imperative to cut spending. It was telling that during the New Hampshire debate, Mitt Romney answered a question on Afghanistan by saying, "It is time to bring our troops home as soon as we can," and that Newt Gingrich took Michele Bachmann’s side in opposition to the military deployment in Libya.

In fact, as the party moves further in that direction, Pawlenty runs the risk of sounding more like a hawkish Democrat than a mainstream Republican. He’s positioned himself to the right of Obama on Afghanistan, criticizing the president for withdrawing troops faster than Gen. David Petraeus would like. But it’s a lonely outpost, since both Huntsman and Romney favor — or at least wish to be seen as favoring — a rapid withdrawal. Pawlenty said that he wants to "redirect foreign aid away from efforts to merely build goodwill" in the Middle East in order to help forge "genuine democracies governed by free people according to the rule of law." It’s not clear what he’s against — flood relief in Pakistan? –but simply by using "foreign aid" in a non-pejorative context he’s ranged himself against his own party’s leadership, which seeks drastic cuts in foreign assistance and in the U.S. Agency for International Development, which delivers it. The next thing you know, he’ll be saying something nice about France.

And the new right-wing internationalism doesn’t hang together very well. "Moral clarity" dictates absolute judgments rather than nuanced ones. Pawlenty presented his own true-North convictions in very stark terms: Arab Spring totally good, Iran totally evil, Israel totally right. This presented some problems. For example, Pawlenty accused Obama of destroying the relationship with Saudi Arabia by failing to stand up to Iran, the Saudis’ Shiite rival. "Engagement" has only emboldened the mullahs; the United States must work with the Saudis to bring about the fall of the regime. But since the United States also needs to unequivocally support "freedom’s rise" in the Arab world, a President Pawlenty would tell the Saudis that "they need to reform and open their society." Candidate Pawlenty tried to square that circle with the implausible claim that America could gain "a position of trust" with the ruling family by standing up to Iran. The plain truth is that if the United States needs Saudi Arabia to counterbalance Iran — and of course to stabilize global oil supply — it will keep the conversation about reform polite and ineffectual.

The actual true North of Republican foreign policy is Israel. Here Pawlenty would not be outbid by the right, or perhaps he simply assumed that his establishment audience would share his views. He accused Obama of harboring an "anti-Israel attitude," and of blaming Israel for "every problem in the Middle East." A President Pawlenty would "never undermine Israel’s negotiating position." He would bring peace to the Middle East by "cultivating and empowering moderate forces within the Palestinian society," identity unspecified.

Leaving aside the absurdity of that last proposition, Israel’s ability to insist on maximalist terms for peace is plainly endangered by "freedom’s rise," which is likely to sweep anti-American and anti-Israel forces into power. A questioner — me, actually — pointed out that one reason Obama had hesitated to call for Mubarak to step down was that Israel viewed the autocrat as an indispensable ally and interlocutor, and feared the alternative. Did Pawlenty have reason to believe that a democratic Egypt would not pose a danger to "our great friend"? Pawlenty responded by saying that since Mubarak-style autocracy was no longer sustainable, American policymakers should push for orderly change now rather than a cataclysm down the road. That’s a perfectly fair answer — but not if you are prepared to protect Israel from any and all forms of pressure.

Pawlenty was asked what he would do if a democratically elected government in the Middle East opposed the U.S. and its interests. He laughed off the question as an absurd hypothetical. But it’s not; Iran, after all, while very far from a democracy, has an elected president who almost certainly represents the will of the majority of citizens. What does moral clarity have to tell us about that?

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